By BARIN KAYAOĞLU
October 29, 2010
After Iran started loading fuel to its nuclear energy reactor in Bushehr on October 26, the most surprising reaction came from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “[The Iranians] are entitled to peaceful civilian nuclear power. They are not entitled to nuclear weapons.”
We’ve heard the latter part of that statement before. But it’s a first that a high-ranking U.S. official has accepted Iran’s right to nuclear energy so openly. And Mrs. Clinton’s right on both counts: as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is not entitled to nuclear weapons and but has every right to a nuclear energy program.
But while the Iranian government also says just that – its nuclear program has only peaceful aims – there’s more. Coupled with its vigorous ballistic missile systems, Iran’s nuclear program makes other Middle Eastern countries quite nervous: and not only the Israelis but also the Iran-friendly Turks. High-ranking Turkish officials, who had brokered a deal jointly with Brazil last summer to ship out 1,200 kg of enriched Iranian uranium – more than half the stockpile, are beginning to voice serious concern behind closed doors about both the drift of the Iranian program and the current standoff.
Unfortunately, the United States and the international community missed a great opportunity last summer by ignoring the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian treaty and passing a new set of sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. The exchange deal certainly wasn’t perfect (Iran could’ve agreed to ship out more uranium) but it could’ve formed a firm basis for broader talks.
At the moment, the United States and Iran are the only two countries that are party to the nuclear talks but have no diplomatic relations. In other words, the United States and Iran talk, but they’re not really talking to each other. That dilemma is the crux of the problem.
The current standoff between the United States and Iran can be resolved only by remedying the mutual distrust between them. Washington has to pitch the gist of Mrs. Clinton’s words to Tehran more forcefully, more frequently, and more eloquently. The Obama administration has to separate the two issues – the nuclear energy program and the nuclear weapons program – and tell the Iranians that there is a way out of the current impasse: give up nukes (or the intention to develop them) and you can keep the electricity.
Last summer’s sanctions demonstrate that the Obama administration is still uncertain about whether it should extend its hand to Iran or wave a clinched fist, which confuses Tehran even more.
As such, to help Washington and the international community, Tehran has to be a lot more transparent about its nuclear program than it has so far. In recent years, foreign governments have detected two major nuclear facilities in Iran, which had not been declared by Iranian authorities. Under international law, the Iranians had to announce those facilities only six months before they become operational. So they were within the law by not coming forward with what they had.
But being legally right is not enough for Iran’s neighbors and the international community anymore. Iran’s neighbors do not want a nuclear arms race in the region. At a time when the countries of the Persian Gulf are shoring up relations with the United States (and spending billions of dollars on U.S.-made weapons), the Iranian government would be better off respecting those concerns.
Another major reason why Iran and the United States do not get along is their frequent use of belligerent rhetoric: “Great Satan,” “axis of evil,” etc. Thus, beyond the nuclear issue, as Scott Harrop, an expert of Iranian affairs, has pointed out, the United States and Iran have to start respecting each other if they really want to avert another catastrophic Middle Eastern war.
The people of the Middle East are entitled to that.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.